Ben Bailey Smith comes from a family bursting with creative talent, his brother is British underground rapper Luke Skyz, his sister is renowned author Zadie Smith.
Some might know Bailey Smith as rapper and musician Doc Brown since 2000. We reviewed the Kwame Lestrade-directed 2011 short film of the track Blighty from his previously unreleased album which screened at the 2015 S.O.UL. Celebrate: Connect short film festival.
Some might know Bailey Smith from the stand up circuit since 2007. Some might know him as a writer – he was a script consultant on the BBC Radio 4 radio play, Rudy’s Rare Records (2008) and he co-wrote and starred as ex-rapper-schoolteacher Nathan in CBBC’s award-winning The 4 O’clock Club (2012-15), DS Jack Hawkins in Law and Order UK (ITV, 2014), and social worker Lol Robinson in Mid-Winter of the Spirit (ITV, 2015).
For his latest role, he will don an 80’s police constable uniform to play PC Johnny Daniels in ITV1’s new comedy-drama, Brief Encounters. We caught up with Bailey Smith ever so briefly after the pilot screening and Q&A to learn a bit more about him…
First of all, congratulations on this role. It looks like a fantastic series?
Yes! It has this real cinematic feel, which they mentioned they were going for…
Looking at your past work, and the development of your career to this point, it seems that you’re providing this lovely thoughtful, emotional anchor for a lot of your projects…
I’m quite picky about a lot of the stuff I do. I’m not at the stage where I’m just walking onto film sets – I still have to audition. But in terms of offers coming through for auditions, I’m quite picky. There are lots, which is great. But a lot of them I just think, well anyone could do that. I want to try something that’s a bit of a challenge for me personally and professionally, that’s gonna force me to think, and obviously, I want to be in stuff that I would watch and enjoy. I don’t see the point in doing stuff that I think, Wow! I’d never watch that in a million years! It just seems weird to do it. So when you lay out the list as you did there, I think it’s quite clear that I’ve tried my best to show myself in these different professional lights [aspects]. If you’re an actor from a minority background, you are extra-wary about not playing stereotypical roles, I suppose. Also you want to surprise people… Maybe this part was written intentionally with a white actor in mind. But I’m doing it, and it’s fine [laughs]. So there’s a bit of that in all of my decisions as well.
Which, I think, you probably also showed in your previous incarnation as Doc Brown the rapper, and also in your foray into stand-up comedy. You did surprise people in a good way, and approach both from a slightly unique perspective…
Very much so, because that is me. In stand up, I can actually talk about these subjects directly and explicitly. There’s no way of editing a routine when you’re performing live. So it’s a great freedom to be able to be able to explain to people, No, you can’t put me in a box. I know you want to, because it’s easier to describe me at the beginning of interviews or in the press packages. But it’s not straightforward to categorise a human being. In fact, it’s quite presumptuous to say, oh yeah, you’re this kind of person. So I just take that opinion into what I do professionally.
Often, I sit in interviews and the interviewer says, Oh, you know, you’re such a polymath! How do you do all these ridiculously different things? I never see it like that. I don’t think they’re that different at all. I look at rap music and, essentially, to be able to do that, I have to be able to write and perform, with a little bit of acting as well, in terms of creating a character that people are interested in listening to. In stand up, I have to write and perform, with a little bit of acing to get the audience interested in a character they can be drawn to. In acting, the only thing that’s missing is the writing. But you’re doing all those other things, saying someone else’s lines. All the jobs that I do are very similar and just require a slightly different energy at times.
This is really interesting for me, because when I first joined TBB, I found myself using the distinction of ‘typical’ and ‘atypical’ roles. But, I’m happy to say that the need to use that term has drastically diminished. With someone like yourself, because how can you base a whole career on atypical? It’s typical for you. You play these very pensive characters. They’re serious, quite often, but there’s quite a sweet innocence and a warmth about them.
But here, in Brief Encounters, which is largely a women’s story, I get the impression that you’re carrying the earnest romantic story line… Is that what you felt when you accepted the role?
When I first started working on the character, I’d seen two episodes. In the second episode, there’s some huge developments in my character’s own story, and they only get bigger as the series goes on. There’s not a lot I can say, but when I saw that, I thought, I definitely want to do it! I have played a sort of straight-ish love interest before. But when I saw the meat on the bones of this character, I thought there’s lots of things here I’ve never done before, and it felt much more fully formed once I’d read the later episodes. That was a huge part in making the decision to come on board and just giving it my all.
How did the role come to you?
Every week or so, something will come in to audition for. On a very rare occasion something will come in and say, this part’s your if you want it [laughs]. That’s a very, very rare occasion! That will come when I [hopefully] kick on to the next level. So, yeah, just the same as any jobbing actor. I wait for the offers of auditions to come in, I go and give it everything and see what happens. I guess my track record so far has been not too bad, and I credit that to just honest performance. I try and find the human being in the character, even when sometimes you’re auditioning and you think, these lines are awful! These lines need a lot of work to sound like a human being. There’s still something you can do [with it]. It’s not as easy, but there’s always something you can do with your tone, with the delivery to make that person sound like a human being you recognise. I want to be up there on screen reflecting life as the viewer knows it. There’s nothing more frustrating for me being a fan of TV and film to watch something, thinking, who DOES that? Who ACTS like that? It’s not about me, it’s about the character, but I hope that people recognise that oh yeah this is like a normal guy, showing you how normal guys react.
Now, you were a DS in Law and Order UK, so how do you feel about being demoted to a PC in this series? You played Hawkins with that authority, the autonomy, the plain clothes…
[Laughs] To play a detective sergeant, investigating murders, with all these action scenes, for me it was ‘boy’s own’ stuff. It was such a lifelong goal realised. Because when I was a little boy, I used to pretend to be a cop on a mission, with a little twig as a gun, backing up against walls – used to LOVE doing that! Theme tune going through my head [laughs], all that stuff. So playing Hawkins was like a dream come true. That said, if you look at the format of Law and Order UK, you don’t go home with the policemen. The police are the good guys, and the bad guys are the bad guys. You don’t get involved with the emotions of the police characters. It’s a very black and white world, crimes are neatly solved at the end and you re-boot the following week. That’s the format and it works brilliantly, as all the different spin-offs of the franchise have proved.
But to take this role, there was a little moment when I thought, aww, another policeman. But, then as I read on, I thought, oh my God, this is a fully formed human being that I get to show. So [laughs], to answer your question, it was a demotion technically, in terms of the character’s position, but it was a huge promotion professionally for me as an actor. It was a no-brainer in that respect. Emotionally too.
It was a real pleasure to speak with yet another actor we are convinced we will be seeing more of on the TV and cinema screen.